Indigenous women from the Ololunga community in Kenya are tackling the deforestation affecting their lands, through the Paran Women Group collective. Within this group, community members empower themselves by establishing tree nurseries and selling trees for reforestation, all with the aim of saving the forest and the lands where they live.
“It’s us, the women, who have done all the work; that’s how we, from the Paran Group, have become involved in reforestation,” says Naiyan Kiplagat, one of the group’s founders. Faced with deforestation in their community, they draw on the traditional knowledge of their people to address the environmental injustices they face.
Naiyan lives in the Ololunga community, in Narok County, a pastureland at the foot of the Mau forest. It’s Kenya’s largest and most vital forest ecosystem. But due to human exploitation, the Mau area has suffered severe deforestation. For many years, thousands of the region’s families have logged here for income, as well as for firewood for domestic use.
“Due to the loss of many trees, the rainfall patterns have changed. Now, we can’t predict when the rains will come,” Naiyan says. “They used to arrive in June or July, but it’s already October, and we haven’t seen rain. Our livestock and other animals have suffered great harm, and the pastures’ benefits are being affected,” she adds.
Deforestation has made this region highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially due to the scarcity of resources like water, which has worsened as more trees were chopped down. “There’s no more water in the river, which is a significant problem, especially for women who are now handling everything,” Naiyan says. “The men leave all the responsibilities to us, and it’s we women who no longer have access to food, not even to the fruits we used to collect from the forest.”
During the presidency of Daniel arap Moi, illegal land allocations heavily impacted the Mau forest. Civil society organizations led campaigns against these rampant, uncontrolled land grabs. In fact, the famed 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai, was one of these activists defending the forest. These land grabs were also documented in the 2004 Ndung’u Report.
Many of the people living in Naiyan’s community are aware that a significant portion of the profits from logging did not stay within the community, and instead went into the pockets of Chinese or European companies. However, they do not blame these major powers for the climate disaster they are facing. According to Naiyan, climate justice in this region of the world means understanding their environment and treating the land as a mother.
In 2012, the Mau Forest Complex, Cherangany Hills, Mount Elgon, Aberdare Ranges, and Mount Kenya were granted the status of “Water Towers.” This designation recognizes these forest ecosystems as vital natural reservoirs that supply water to the rivers and lakes of the country.
The International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 states that rural and Indigenous Communities should be consulted before a company launches a mega-extractive project that could affect communities’ environment and access to basic resources. But the Mau forest’s situation falls outside this convention’s protection. That is because here, logging is being carried out by the communities themselves, with the hidden involvement of large companies.
“(Our work) means taking care of Mother Earth, you, me, and everyone. It means taking the lead and developing practices that are environmentally friendly. The truth is that we can’t blame anyone else; we ourselves are responsible for taking care of our Mother Earth,” asserts Naiyan, who has become a spokesperson for more than 60 women’s groups in this area that have joined the Paran Women Group.
Productive work that cares for the land
In 2005, Naiyan began meeting with several other women to promote various productive activities that would enable them to generate income, empower themselves, and at the same time help protect their forests and water sources.
Originally, the Paran Women Group gathered to craft traditional beaded necklaces, which they sold to tourists. For the past 18 years, they have also produced eco-friendly stoves that use charcoal briquettes instead of firewood. The stoves resemble small concrete tubes about 50 centimeters tall and 30 centimeters wide, and their sale helps generate resources.
At the same time, the group started developing tree nurseries, where they plant seeds from trees native to deforested areas. They also grow legumes and vegetables, which they sell along with the trees that are ready for reforestation.
“We have planted trees in our homes, in schools, and everywhere we could. So far, we have rehabilitated over 150,000 hectares. The change has been magnificent! Now, more women can access clean water. This has changed the lives of many people, as contaminated sources caused many illnesses, especially among the children of our communities,” says Naiyan.
Selling stoves, charcoal briquettes, young trees, and the vegetables they harvest, has enabled many women to improve their situation so their daughters and sons can stay in school, instead of working. These efforts have also ensured a nutritious food source.
Organized women spreading change
Paran Women Group’s activities are carried out through patrols—groups of women that travel to different villages in Ololunga to give talks on the importance of forest care and other environmentally friendly practices. They share this important information with their neighbors, so that they, in turn, can pass the knowledge on to other women.
In 2005, when the group started creating their tree nurseries, using ecological stoves, and carrying out their awareness campaigns, there were just 20 groups of women from different villages participating. Today, more than 64 groups have joined, and the intention is to keep growing.
“When we visit communities, we hold many meetings to raise awareness among the people and help them understand what’s really happening with the deforestation we have carried out, so we understand how our lives are tied to the forest and the importance of restoring it,” Naiyan adds.
Eventually, after several years of this work, the Kenyan government contacted Paran Woman Group, to recognize and support the women’s efforts. This gave the group access to local radio stations, so they could spread their message about helping the forest to many more communities. That resulted in increased sales at their tree nurseries. “Everyone wanted to participate and be part of our initiative,” Naiyan says.
Currently, Naiyan and the rest of the group are seeking funding to spread their message to more regions in Kenya that could be severely affected by climate change and other negative effects caused by the exploitation of natural resources.
Exactly this type of financing is a huge issue in the global climate discussion–an issue that is expected to be addressed at COP 28, this year’s edition of the United Nations’ annual Climate Change Conference bringing together governments, civil organizations, and Indigenous Communities to discuss actions needed to limit and mitigate Global Warming, and assess what’s already being done.
For at least a decade, the issue of financing to combat losses and damages caused by climate change has played a prominent role in the COP. These resources should be directed to countries where indigenous communities are facing the negative effects of the climate emergency.
Yet despite nearly 30 years of these meetings, we still lack a clear outline for establishing a transitional committee to provide funding for initiatives like Paran’s worldwide. Funding like this could help address climate change-related losses and damages, which especially affect indigenous communities in rural areas.
This was explained by Aditi Mukherji, one of the 93 people involved in drafting the synthesis report, the final chapter of the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The IPCC is a group of international scientists who continually assess the global state of climate change.
“Climate justice is crucial because those who have contributed the least to climate change are disproportionately affected,” explained Aditi Mukherji. “Almost half of the world’s population lives in regions that are highly vulnerable to climate change. In the last decade, the number of deaths due to floods, droughts, and storms was 15 times higher in these highly vulnerable regions.”
For Naiyan, climate justice means supporting a living world, that provides future generations the opportunity to grow, develop, and continue to live on this Earth.